As the Biden administration commences its four-year opportunity to deliver campaign promises this week, many Americans are optimistic about the prospects of immigration reform. In fact, President-elect Biden is poised to unveil a plan for an 8-year path to citizenship on his first day in office, alongside a growing list of executive orders and issues the administrations will tackle. Biden’s plans for immigration reform will soon cross paths with a new caravan of immigrants making its way from Central America to the U.S. southern border. In the meantime, the passage of immigration reform will follow a less certain path in a polarized Congress and it will only reach victory if it remains a priority for the Biden administration and if Democrats can garner bipartisan support.
“Biden’s plans for immigration reform will soon cross paths with a new caravan of immigrants making its way from Central America to the U.S. southern border.”
Immigration reform is not new to American politics. Since the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) passed under President Reagan in 1986, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pursued immigration reform. The most notable successes have included the creation of the deportation machine under President Clinton and hundreds of miles of fence along the southern border under President Bush, while the most notable failures include amnesty and expansionist immigration policies. Increasingly, the Democratic Party is associated with expansionist immigration policies but the party has been unable to actually deliver on any relief bill. For example, in 2010, President Obama failed to deliver on the DREAM Act after coming five votes short in the Senate at a time when Democrats controlled all branches of government. In 2013, the so-called “Gang of Eight” failed to deliver on a bipartisan omnibus bill that included amnesty and border enforcement. However, Obama’s administration was successful in shaping immigration policy without passing legislation. Namely, executive action created the DACA program, the militarization of the Southern Border, and record-breaking deportations. In all, executive policy under President Obama was used to reward the narrative of immigrant exceptionalism by providing relief to college students and to punish other immigrants who were not politically attractive. Similarly, President Trump used executive action to curtail Congress and establish a travel ban, his zero tolerance policy and the construction of hundreds of miles of his wall along the southern border. In 2021, Democrats have less bipartisan support, smaller margins in the House and a Senate that is split down the middle to accomplish immigration reform through legislation.
The prospects of achieving immigration reform are even more worrying when considering the plethora of issues the Biden administration has committed to address such as mass inoculation, infrastructure and healthcare. It is very possible that an immigration reform bill will be sacrificed in order to pass a healthcare or COVID relief bill – all of which are pressing issues. However, immigration is also a pressing issue that can be integrated into the larger framework of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda, which seeks to modernize the country. The current immigration system is far from modern and functional – with a backlog of 1 million cases–and creates a burden for Americans and prospective immigrants alike. This is a unique moment in history for the Biden administration to work with Congress in a bipartisan approach to modernize an immigration system that is still largely based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
“The current immigration system is far from modern and functional – with a backlog of 1 million cases–and creates a burden for Americans and prospective immigrants alike. This is a unique moment in history for the Biden administration to work with Congress in a bipartisan approach to modernize an immigration system that is still largely based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.”
Even if President-elect Biden prioritizes immigration, his administration will need to gain support and votes from Republicans to pass immigration reform in a divided Congress. As the DREAM Act failure has shown, it is not enough to have a unified government to pass legislation and the IRCA success has shown that with the right approach it is possible to win the other side of the aisle. Most recently, some Republican lawmakers have shown willingness to look beyond partisan politics and join Democrats in efforts such as impeachment. If Republican lawmakers can be courted to vote against their party they can also be courted to vote in favor of an immigration reform bill that includes amnesty, a feat that has notably only been achieved by Republicans and under the unique circumstances of divided government.
President-elect Biden’s promise to deliver immigration reform will test his ability to work with Republicans and to keep his party unified. If he is truly committed to the cause and able to compromise, then Congress will be closer to passing legislation that is long overdue. If Biden fails to do both, then he will likely resort to issuing executive actions and continue a tradition that delivers few benefits for the American people.